True Tortellini: Pasta Inspired by Venus’ Sexy Bellybutton

—by Eric Dregni, HPC member

“If you manage to make tortellini, when you return home to America you’ll have lots of friends!” says la nonna, the grandmother of one of Katy’s students.

We’ve gathered for a day of making fresh pasta at la nonna’s little house just outside the center of Modena in northern Italy. After she shows us the gorgeous restored red Moto Guzzi that belonged to her late husband, we’re ready to get down to business. Or rather, Katy and la nonna are making pasta, since I’m not allowed too close to the kitchen table because I’d get in the way.

Instead, I’m in charge of writing down all the recipes as la nonna recites them to me, half in dialect, half in Italian. Many of the quantities are “just a dash,” “as much as you need,” and even “a little bit,” making duplication of her recipes at home nearly impossible. “There’s no secret, once you make the pasta, you learn,” la nonna advises, but we’ve already tried making fresh pasta at home with little success. We need the helping hand of an expert.

La nonna describes how her grandmother taught her to make pasta, and she from hers, and on and on. La nonna’s daughter doesn’t have time to learn how to make pasta, so the tradition in her family might be lost. She’s happy we’re interested. “I’ve taken Katy on as my student only because I know that she’s serious and she really wants to learn. You know, in the old days in Modena, if a woman didn’t know how to make pasta, nobody wanted her!”

The aprons are tied, the eggs and flour are mixed, and the pasta is rolled. Like a painter with her brush, la nonna handles her four-foot long rolling pin while teaching her new apprentice. Soon the yellow pasta is so thin it fills the entire table and hangs down off of the edge almost to the floor.

They begin with tagliatelle, cestini (little baskets), farfalle (butterflies), maltagliati (badly cut ones), and quadrettini (little squares). To make the grooves on maccheroni, la nonna wraps a little square of pasta around a stick and rolls it on the strings of an old loom. When I ask who thought of doing that, la nonna responds, “No one knows. We only know it was simply a stroke of genius!”

Now for the most difficult of the filled pasta: tortellini. In the past, I made the mistake of wanting all sorts of different fillings for pasta (mushroom, cheese and sundried tomato, pesto, or even shrimp), but most Modenesi look at me like I’m a perverted American. Tortellini can only have meat filling, usually with prosciutto, mortadella (bologna), and ground pork. If they don’t have meat inside, they simply aren’t tortellini. Period.

Luckily, la nonna isn’t so rigid. When I ask about other fillings, she says what’s fun about cooking is experimentation. But first the basics. Drop a dollop of meat on a small square of pasta and wrap it around your pinky. The shape of tortellini is based on Venus’ bellybutton. They’re supposed to be small enough to fit ten tortellini in your palm.

La nonna finally lets me try, but I don’t have her knack. She comforts me with an old proverb, “Don’t worry, because ‘pane e tortelli, cotti son tutti belli.’” (Bread and tortelli when they’re cooked they’re all beautiful).

Tortelloni, on the other hand, are slightly easier and bigger, and tradition isn’t so strict with the filling. Spinach and ricotta are standard, pumpkin and nutmeg are permitted. Meat, however, is out of the question. The last pasta la nonna shows Katy how to make is ravioli. “Ravioli aren’t from here, they’re imported, but we’ll make them anyway,” says la nonna. In Italy, if a specific dish comes from the next town over, it’s considered foreign food.

After eight hours of rolling fresh pasta, Katy’s arms are exhausted, but la nonna is still going strong. We stop for a break of gnocco fritto, essentially fried dough, with some prosciutto and parmigiano-reggiano.

While we’re eating, la nonna pulls out a pasta maker and tells Katy proudly, “In 1973, they gave me this machine, which is now a relic, but I’ve never used it! These machines change the flavor of the pasta so it comes out tough. I’m going to give it to you, but you must promise never to use it! This will keep you honest and true to the pasta.” Katy accepts graciously, but is confused why she is receiving a gift she must never use.

La nonna continues, “To get good at pasta, you have to make it at least once a week. We make it every Sunday. In America, if you don’t find work, you could open a tortellini store!”

Following our pasta-making experience, I wrote an article about it for the local weekly newspaper. Now, everyone on our street asks Katy how her pasta making is coming along. The woman at the pet store gives her advice on the best tools for making pasta. The woman at the photocopy shop gives Katy her apparently not-so “secret recipe” for tortellini and tells her butcher to expect an americana who will be ordering her special mix of meat. Friends and neighbors fish for an invitation to taste the tortellini, but Katy can’t keep up with all the demand. Instead, she’s undertaken an equally revered Italian pastime, sciopero (strike).